“ Address: Croft Hotel / Croft-on-Tees / Darlington / North Yorkshire / DL2 2ST / Tel: 01325 720319 „
The Croft Hotel is a Best Western with a twist, it has themed rooms and lays outside of the town in a small countryside setting, aspiring to be a boutique hotel rather than conforming to the norm. Situated just off the A66 which borders the market town of Darlington in the North East, on the A167, the Croft Hotel is home to one of my favourite restaurants of all time, Raffles.
When you enter the hotel (parking to both front and rear), there is a small bar area with comfortable seating booths. Here, you can order an apperitif from the vast selection of wines, ales and spirits the restaurant carries. It is also likely that you will be met by the front of house or restaurant manager, Unsal. Don't be put off, I am not particularly fond of being welcomed personally to a restaurant and talked to as if I am in a bad American film 'Would madam like the moules marinere to start, they come...preeeetttyy (stands on tip toes rocks back and forth like he's lord of the manor)...highly recommended by myself and the team here', blah; however, if you like that sort of thing, then perhaps you will love these two bookends. Otherwise, relax and wait to be shown to your table in the main restaurant.
Walking through the woodpanelled arch way to the main restaurant, you will not believe your eyes - it's like walking in to another world; the restaurant décor is inspired by the world famous Raffles of Singapore. Think rich, ultra chic fabric drapes, huge ornate sculptures of Asian Elephants, subtle lighting, oriental grasses, water features and a grand piano complete with occassional pianist. Apparently, all of the decoration is imported from Malaysia, even the table linen. Raffles is Colonial luxe at it's best.
There is a bar menu (available, unsurprisingly, only in the bar area), but I really recommend (and not in a pompous way) the a la carte restaurant menu. The Head Chef, Graham Halliday, describes the cuisine as 'contemporary British Cuisine with European influences'; I couldn't agree more. With mainly a French influence, the everchanging menu uses locally sourced produce where possible, combined with flavours and textures which are almost indescribable. Which is going to make for an interesting review...
Upon being shown to the table, as usual it is customary to select drinks primarily. As aforementioned, there are some good wines to choose from, but to be honest, their house wines are usually a great choice, particularly the crisp pinot grigio they plum for at £12 approx per bottle. Try to select a table which is away from the entrance; the kitchen is outside the archway to the restaurant and Unsal is Turkish, ergo he takes no prisoners and listening to him speak to the staff like they are something off the sole of his shoe doesn't make for pleasurable dining. Again, don't be put off, just adapt because he has worked there for the last five years at least and I don't think he's going anywhere fast, plus he is really good at running a tight ship which is what is required for perfect service the hard-nosed consumer has come to expect.
After ordering drinks you can expect to wait around 5 minutes minimum for them to return and bring you a menu - if you want fast service then I would seriously recommend going elsewhere - but if you want apt service which reflects the restaurants sedate ambience, you wont be disappointed. The menu is pretty extensive and busy, so you will want time to look over it carefully to optimise your selection. Whilst you wait you will be given complimentary mediterranean freshly baked breads, olive oil / balsamic vinegar and olives to munch on and start the cogs of your appetite. A few recommendations food wise from me;
Gammon and Eggs (seasonal, from the home comforts section of the a la carte menu) comprises of an individual mini gammon joint, honey roasted to divine perfection - literally falls apart when you begin to cut in to it, accompanied by chunky tower of home-style chips and soft boiled quail eggs; costs around £15
Fish and Chips (seasonal, from the home comforts section of the a la carte menu) comprises locally sourced premium white fillet of cod encased in a seasoned batter, with chunky tower of home-style chips and 'mushy' peas, steeped overnight and flavoured with chunky smoky bacon; costs around £10
Pan Roast Monkfish (Entrees section of a la carte menu) perfectly roasted monkfish, accompanied by pesto mash - a taste sensation I have tried unsuccessfully to recreate at home, stewed peppers and chorizo sausage dressed in a tomato glaze; costs around £17
If that's not enough to get your taste buds then wait until you see the starters (my favourite King Scallop Risotto) and the dessert menu; Chocolate tart, using Valronha Chocolate; the most exquisite and tantalising chocolate on this earth. And if you do go, I seriously recommend trying their unusually flavoured home made ice creams, not just any ice cream, these are a perfect and fitting way to round your meal. As well as the home comforts and mains, they also have a grill section which offers the best non-steak house steak I've tasted. After you've ordered your food, expect to wait a little while to be served, particularly if you're only getting a main (always seems to take longer!). This is because every single meal is cooked to order and made fresh.
When the food is served to your table, you can't help but be impressed. In other a la carte restaurants I've eaten in I've been horrified when my plate turns up with a single pork loin medallion (about 2 inch circumference) and a scoop of mash smaller than school dinner mash; I always think I can't do this I am.going.to.be.STARVING! But at Raffles that small=a la carte mentality is eradicated, you get decent portions, wonderfully and innovatively presented to you, hot and fresh - what more could you want. Well you will probably also want the food to excite you, caress your tastebuds, spark conversation; again you will not be disappointed - and you will not be able to help yourself from sampling your fellow diners selection.
Overall I would say that a 2 course menu for 2 people will cost (with a bottle of house wine thrown in to the mix) £50-£55 so it's definitely not cheap. But it's an almost affordable treat once in a while, plus, it's much cheaper than going for a night out in town drinking, I sound old now, but even if you pit the price against somewhere cheap - Pizza Express for example, your talking £35-£40 at least for two people. Anyway, enough of the justification, they could charge £30 for a main course and people would still pay it as the food is total divinity. They serve two/three course special menus on occasion where two people can enjoy wine and food from a selection for around £18 pp (bargain) and they also have a Sunday lunch carvery £13.95 for 3 courses.
The staff are unique - the waiters, waitresses and bar staff cannot do enough to help and are always impeccable in appearance. The restaurant manager is a little quirky as I've touched on, but look past that and see the massive efforts the rest of the team go to to make sure your dining experience is second to none. If you're lucky the hotel proprietor may grace you with his presence, he's like Duncan Bannatynes older, greyer, less successful but equally endearing brother. He occasionally mingles with the diners and is always incredibly welcoming to returning guests (because of course they are making him money, walking £ signs). If you're lucky though like I have been in the past, he might be willing to locate you on the premium VIP table, raised from the other diners and very intimate and private with only one table and 6 chairs (we had a birthday there once).
You're dining experience should take around 2 hours, for 3 courses and coffees, if you want to take longer, there is no rush and you can't help but feel relaxed and welcome. When you leave you will feel happy, content and like you have been dining amongst A Listers. Overall, a wonderful, if occasional, dining experience in stunning surrounds with exceptional staff and food that you will be unable to appreciate, until you have tasted it.
At the Best Western
Mon - Sat: 12.00 - 14.00 & 18.00 - 21.30
Sun: 12.00 - 17.00